ECUADORPublished by MAC on 2006-12-19
UN investigates treatment of Ecuadoran anti-mine activist
Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen
19 December 2006
The United Nations' high commissioner for human rights is investigating allegations that pro-mining factions framed a prominent critic of a Canadian mining venture in Ecuador in order to stifle opposition, CanWest News Service has learned.
Carlos Zorrilla, a member of the Ecuadoran environmental group DECOIN, was accused of assaulting and robbing an American woman at a July 13 demonstration in Quito against plans by Ascendant Copper Corp. to mount an exploration venture in the Intag region, a nature preserve in northern Ecuador.
Leslie Brooke Chaplin, of Arizona, claimed Zorrilla stole her camera as well as $500 and told demonstrators to rough her up during the march.
The accusation led to an arrest warrant for Zorrilla, who went into hiding minutes before almost 20 policemen, some in ski masks, stormed his home on Oct. 17.
``The police tore my room apart and pointed their guns at my wife and kid,''said Zorrilla by e-mail from Ecuador, adding that they ``then proceeded to plant a gun and a bag of drugs in my house.''
The warrant was lifted after supporters pointed out irregularities in the case, in which Zorrilla was not given a chance to rebut the charges before the warrant was issued, as is the normal practice in Ecuador. However, the original charges still stand.
Video footage of the demonstration shows Chaplin was distributing pro-mining pamphlets during the demonstration, and that she left the crowd unharmed, say DECOIN and the Ottawa-based advocacy group MiningWatch Canada.
MiningWatch has posted the video on its website.
Ascendant CEO Gary Davis said he knew little about the incident, but that Chaplin was ``not working for Ascendant.''
Asked why she would be distributing pamphlets for the company, he said, ``A lot of people are pro-mining in Ecuador.''
Contacted at her home in Sun City, Ariz., Chaplin refused to comment.
In a November statement, the Vancouver firm said it had nothing to do with the incident, and that the case was supported by the testimony of four witnesses and a doctor.
A spokesman for the UN special rapporteur on human-rights defenders, which investigates cases where rights activists are targeted for persecution, confirmed this week that the office is ``reviewing information''on the case.
On Dec. 1, Amnesty International wrote to Ecuador's attorney general, saying it is ``extremely concerned that these actions would seem to be intended to intimidate and tarnish the legitimacy of the campaign and demands by the villagers of Intag.''
Last year, Zorrilla received death threats related to his lobbying against the proposed copper project, Amnesty noted.
Davis says anti-mining activists have also resorted to threats and violence, pointing out that last year a medical clinic provided by the firm was torched by about 300 residents.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently published a report raising concerns that activists in South America are often targeted by ``smear campaigns and criminal prosecutions.''